A new and confusing system is now in place thanks to the uncertainty of Delta, and many are feeling more stressed and anxious than ever. Dr Dougal Sutherland, Gaynor Parkin and Dr Amanda Wallis have some practical suggestions on small but helpful ways to help regain some control.
Last week saw our new Covid-19 roadmap unveiled and, with it, our sense of certainty is up in the air.
Previously we had clear markers to measure our progress in the fight against the virus and a sense that we had control. Dropping case numbers would reliably lead to alert levels shifting, and we could count on life returning to “normal” when the finish-line was in sight.
Now, a new – for many of us, confusing – system is in place.
Your emotional reactions are natural and normal.
Uncertainty makes it tricky for us to choose which decisions to make or what to do. It’s completely normal to experience uncertainty as upsetting, confusing and frustrating.
While ambiguity of “if” and “when” exists in nearly all domains of our life, this ambiguity is now pervasive, whether you’re in Auckland or Invercargill. Plus, there’s a heightened awareness that life is about to become a lot more complicated. With it, that connected sense of “we’re all in this together” may start to fray.
As restrictions ease, we are likely to see more flagrant rule-breaking or people “testing the limits” of our alert levels. You’re not alone if, as a result, you’re feeling more stressed or anxious than ever.
This sense of unease, or “languishing”, is our natural response to an uncertain environment. We know that having a sense of control over our lives is critical to our wellbeing.
When control is taken away from us, we can feel unmoored and apprehensive. Our apprehension is especially heightened when we don’t have clear goals to work towards, or we feel like the outcomes of those goals are totally out of our hands.
On the flipside, it’s important to acknowledge that the news is not all bad. For Aucklanders, the joy of reuniting (masked and outdoors) in bubbles with a small number of friends and family is a powerful wellbeing booster and may help to buffer the negative impact of uncertainty.
Social connection is one of our strongest psychological needs. To have that back in our wellbeing toolkit for when life feels tough is something to maximise and celebrate – while still adhering to alert level rules of course.
What else can we do to cope with the ambiguity that these alert level changes bring?
First, focus on what is in your control – which is, your own thoughts and actions, and how you spend your time (outside of work or other commitments).
Shift your focus or worry away from looking for blame, what other people “should” be doing, and what might happen in the future. Instead, direct your energy towards what is most important to you – e.g., concentrating on doing my best work today, keeping my attention with my children and doing something nice together, helping my neighbour by moving her lawns.
One practical step we can take towards this goal is scheduling daily “worry time”. As you consider your worries, identify where they sit within your circle of control – if they are within your control, what can you do today to make things a little bit better? Engage your practical problem-solving skills here and try not to let your mind wander into catastrophising territory or trying to predict the future.
Then, set your own goals and routines. Psychological research has found that, when coping with tough times, what helps is to plan in advance daily activities for pleasure and mastery.
Make sure you book in fun activities you will enjoy as well as tasks that will give you a sense of achievement or satisfaction. Small is good here – mastery might come from tidying the kitchen junk drawer, making cookies, or reading aloud to your child.
Finally, don’t forget to lean on one another and embrace new opportunities to explore and socialise. Novelty and new experiences give us a dopamine boost and anticipation strengthens the hit. So, plan ahead and look forward to linking up with some newbubblers in different places.
If easing out of a stricter lockdown feels scary for you, it’s fine to go slow and stay within your current bubble while enjoying some different outdoor activities that feel safe.
The weeks to come will continue to test our resilience as we cope with new and novel challenges and ongoing uncertainty. Don’t forget to be compassionate with yourself and others as we adjust to change, and take time to care for yourself using the tips above.
Gaynor Parkin is a clinical psychologist and chief executive of Umbrella Wellbeing and Dr Amanda Wallis leads the research programme there.